04 March 2018

The Left Hand of Leonard

by R.T. Lawton

AHMM March/April 2018 cover
Con schemes have been going on since the serpent in the Garden of Eden sweet-talked Eve into taking a bite of the forbidden fruit.

"Come on, baby, just one bite. You know you want to. It'll make you smarter, prettier and it'll taste better than anything you've ever had." Or something like that. Choose your own words.

From that time forward,  according to the Bible, innocence was lost. Man, and woman, then came up with various ploys to manipulate other people into parting with their wealth, possessions or other coveted objects. In the last few years, you personally have likely been warned about many of the recent scams and probably even been approached by a scammer or three. But by now, you're too smart to fall for those types of ploys. Aren't you? Right, but all a scammer has to do is find your soft spot.

So, let's go back several centuries and see what was happening then. A religious fervor had swept all of Europe. The Crusades became the rage, with kings, knights, nobles, soldiers, monks, peasants and even young children hitting the road to the Middle East in an attempt to save the Holy Land for Christianity.

Over time, some of those pilgrims returned home with wondrous tales of strange sights in foreign lands. Many of these survivors had visited places referenced in the Bible, places that most stay-at-home people knew about only from worship services by their local religious leaders. Only now, with these returning pilgrims to speak first hand of what they'd seen, the places became real to the listener, no longer just place names in a book or a sermon. Along with these returned pilgrims came religious relics from the Holy Land. A bit of bones from some saint, a piece of wood from a coffin or cross, all alleged to have been from a particular person or place referenced in the Bible. Churches and monasteries began to purchase or otherwise acquire these holy relics. The fame of these religious organizations grew according to the status of the relics they had obtained. Competition grew fierce, to include the stealing of relics from their owners.

NOTE: King Louis IX of France himself purchased some of these relics from Baldwin the Second, then emperor of Constantinople, for the price of 130,000 livres. Actually, the money was paid to the Venetians who were holding the Passion Relics as collateral for cash they had loaned to Baldwin. In any case, King Louis received the relics at Paris in August 1239 where he first housed them in a building known as Sainte Chapelle (Holy Chapel). One of the items was alleged to be the Crown of Thorns (now lodged in Notre Dame Cathedral). In 1246, Louis added alleged fragments of the True Cross and the Holy Lance to his collection.

Now, back to those returning pilgrims. If a knight or soldier returning alone (not with his lord and master) hadn't plundered, then he probably came home broke. Food and travel to get there cost money. Who's to say a little piece of sheep bone or a sliver of ancient wood to display during a dramatic tale wouldn't bolster a good story about the Holy Land. Make the telling seem more real. Might be good for a meal and a cup of wine from the listening audience. And then, miracle of miracles, what if some stay-at-home nobleman or church leader desired to purchase that now "holy relic." The scam played out.

St. Leonard's Church in Noblat, France
This brings us to "The Left Hand of Leonard," 6th in my 1660's Paris Underworld series, AHMM March/April 2018 issue.

Our young-orphan, inept-pickpocket protagonist has been summoned by the leader of their criminal enclave to go south with two of the leader's henchmen to steal some of the bones of Saint Leonard from a church. The bones, alleged to have certain medicinal powers, are to be sold to a nobleman in order to heal his wife. The two henchmen and the young orphan travel to southern France, where under the cover of darkness, they enter the church. Unbeknownst to them, a clever con has already been set in motion. For the rest of the action and the ending, you'll have to read the story.

NOTE: Saint Leonard, the patron of imprisoned people (to include political prisoners, prisoners of war and Crusaders captured by the Muslims), women in labor and horses, died November 6, 559 A.D. His first claim to real fame came from the power of his prayers which saved the wife and child of a Frankish nobleman during a premature birth. In return, he was granted a plot of land where a town and a church were later built. After his death, his bones ended up in St. Leonard's Church in Noblat, France. Here's a real saint with real bones, pretty much accounted for through the centuries.

Thus was a home grown saint found and used for a fictitious story. The historical backgrounds meshed and were too good for me to pass up.

SIDE NOTE: Since we're talking about religious relics, here's an interesting situation for those of you watching the Knightfall series currently on television. It seems that in 2014, two Spanish researchers claimed to have found the Holy Grail inside another object in a church in the town of Leon in northern Spain. The cup has been analyzed as having been made in about the appropriate time period, however there is no direct line on its early history. When you look at the photo and see the rich materials used to make and decorate the cup, you have to wonder who the rich patron was who donated this chalice for the Last Supper, but then a richly jeweled chalice was probably more preferable to the religious tastes of the upper classes in the earlier centuries than an everyday clay pottered cup would have been. You are now left to draw your own conclusions.


  1. R.T., the trade in Passion Relics seems like something we might see on American Greed today. Nothing really changes, does it? Or I guess the thing is human nature never really changes. And your story sounds intriguing. Now I have to go find my AHMM so I can find out the end.

  2. I will look forward to reading your next historical mystery. Sounds like a good one.

  3. I still like the scene at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indy looks around for the "cup of a carpenter" and picks an unadorned, simple one - and gets it right.

    As for medieval relics, there were sooo many of them. The only thing I've ever agreed with John Calvin on is when he said that there were enough fragments of the True Cross in Europe to build an ark. My personal favorite was someone, somewhere who was rumored to have the head of John the Baptist as a young man. Ba-da-da-boom!

    Looking forward to reading your story, R.T.

  4. Paul & Janice, thanks. I hope the story lives up to your expectations.

  5. Eve, that's a good one on John the Baptist's head when he was a young man. Hadn't heard that one before. Gotta love a good con.

  6. R.T., thanks for the background on a very good story. I think I have been inspired to write a blog about unreliable narrators, with your story as the hook.

    As for the idea of a "carpenter's cup," it reminds me of the greatest forgery trial in the history of Israel, involving the "James the Brother of Jesus" ossuary. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/artifacts-and-the-bible/is-the-brother-of-jesus-inscription-on-the-james-ossuary-a-forgery/

    Jodi Magness is a great archaeologist and an acquaintance of mine. She once lectured about the ossuary, saying it was definitely not the bone box of the biblical James. She said, in effect, I'm not an expert on ancient handwriting or patinas on stone (two of the methods used to study the box) but I know those boxes were for the wealthy and James was both poor and against the aristocracy. So he wouldn't have HAD a bone box, this one or another.

  7. Strange.
    Third time I put up a comment on a post and it disappeared.
    Put one up on this post earlier.
    Good post, RT. Look forward to readihg your story.

  8. As usual, I enjoyed your story, RT.

    I found the tall windows fascinating in Sainte Chapelle. In panels like cartoon strips, one side of the chapel's windows tells the Biblical story of Christ and the second half tells of obtaining the relics for the chapel. It's beautiful.

  9. Look forward to reading your story.

    My favorite religious relic story is about "and this is the skull of St John the Baptist as a child".


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